Theologians and catechists: wake up! Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Sep. 15, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

First in a two-part series on a Pew Study about why young people are leaving the active practice of Christianity.

After perusing the latest Pew Study on why young people are leaving the active practice of Christianity, I confess that I just sighed in exasperation. I don't doubt for a moment the sincerity of those who responded to the survey, but the reasons they offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling.

That is to say, any theologian, apologist, or evangelist worth his salt should be able easily to answer them. And this led me (hence the sigh) to the conclusion that "we have met the enemy and it is us."

Revive art of apologetics

For the past 50 years or so, Christian thinkers have largely abandoned the art of apologetics and have failed (here I offer a j'accuse to many in the Catholic universities) to resource the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in order to hold off critics of the faith. I don't blame the avatars of secularism for actively attempting to debunk Christianity; that's their job, after all.

But I do blame teachers, catechists, evangelists, and academics within the Christian churches for not doing enough to keep our young people engaged. These studies consistently demonstrate that unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we're going to keep losing our kids.

Religion and science

Let me look just briefly at some of the chief reasons offered for walking away from Christianity. Many evidently felt that modern science somehow undermines the claims of the faith. One respondent said: "rational thought makes religion go out the window," and another complained of the "lack of any sort of scientific evidence of a creator."

Well, I'm sure it would come as an enormous surprise to St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Blessed John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Joseph Ratzinger -- all among the most brilliant people Western culture has produced -- that religion and reason are somehow incompatible.

And to focus more precisely on the issue of "scientific evidence," the sciences, ordered by their nature and method to an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within the universe, cannot even in principle address questions regarding God, who is not a being in the world, but rather the reason why the finite realm exists at all. There simply cannot be "scientific" evidence or argument that tells one way or the other in regard to God.

Mind you, this is by no means to imply that there are no rational warrants for belief in God. Philosophers over the centuries, in fact, have articulated dozens of such demonstrations, which have, especially when considered together, enormous probative force.

I have found, in my own evangelical work, that the argument from contingency gets quite a bit of traction with those who are wrestling with the issue of God's existence. What these arguments have lacked, sad to say, are convinced and articulate defenders within the academy and in the ranks of teachers, catechists, and apologists.

Psychologizing beliefs

One of the young people responded to the survey using the formula made famous by Karl Marx: "religion just seems to be the opiate of the people." Marx's adage, of course, is an adaptation of Ludwig Feuerbach's observation that religion amounts to a projection of our idealized self-image.

Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century, further adapted Feuerbach, arguing that religion is like a waking dream, a wish-fulfilling fantasy. This line of thinking has been massively adopted by the so-called "new atheists" of our time. I find it regularly on my internet forums.

What all of this comes down to, ultimately, is a dismissive and patronizing psychologization of religious belief. But it is altogether vulnerable to a tu quoque (you do the same thing) counter-attack.

I think it is eminently credible to say that atheism amounts to a wish-fulfilling fantasy, precisely in the measure that it allows for complete freedom and self-determination: if there is no God, no ultimate moral criterion, I can do and be whatever I want.

In a word, the psychologizing cuts just as effectively in the opposite direction. Hence, the two charges more or less cancel one another out -- and this should compel us to return to real argument at the objective level.


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org